The verdict delivered yesterday by the WHO on the mainland's handling of its Sars outbreak should send a clear and positive message to the world. David Heymann, the WHO's executive director for communicable diseases, said it had been given access to the information it needed from the provinces. 'It's been informative, complete and reflects the huge effort that has been made by China to contain Sars,' he said. This conclusion is all the more reassuring given that Dr Heymann has been regarded as one of the leading sceptics of China's claims of a dramatic decline in cases. In the days leading up to his trip to Beijing, Dr Heymann had questioned official statistics showing the level of new cases to be in single digits, suggesting there may be a problem with the mainland's definition of probable Sars patients. His comments had fuelled international concerns that China was still failing to come clean. The fact that the Geneva-based expert has been reassured, only a day after arriving in the capital, is good news for China and the rest of the world. Hopefully, this will bring to a satisfactory end the sorry and sometimes confusing saga of whether or not the mainland was co-operating with the international health body. Dr Heymann had every right to be sceptical of official figures showing a rapidly falling caseload. The mainland notoriously covered up the initial outbreak and did not always make life easy for the WHO as it sought to get to grips with the deadly new disease. Even after the central government's U-turn in March, which saw officials sacked and Sars given blanket coverage in the official media, doubts understandably lingered. But the WHO, like China and other countries faced with the onset of Sars, has lessons to learn from its handling of the crisis. The message it communicated to the world on China was not always as clear as the one articulated by Dr Heymann yesterday. Indeed, praise by one WHO spokesman for the assistance it was receiving from officials was often quickly followed by complaints from another about a lack of co-operation and transparency. This was, no doubt, partly due to the political tightrope the organisation had to walk. Inspectors on the ground in China needed to rely on the help of the authorities to do their job. It would not be surprising if they had toned down their comments and tempered any criticism with assertions that the mainland was co-operating. However, there were also occasions when it appeared WHO officials in different parts of the world were expressing personal opinions which conflicted. This was compounded by the international media's thirst for Sars stories. The official mainland media was able to use WHO statements praising the authorities, while at the same time the western media found quotes from WHO representatives criticising China. Reports that WHO experts were being refused access to Beijing's military hospitals were still appearing after the visits had taken place. It may seem harsh to find fault with the WHO at a time when it faced a mammoth task, particularly given the mainland's suppression of information about the spread of the disease when the outbreak began. But this was a time when the world was hanging on every word uttered by WHO experts. The opinions officials expressed could have profound repercussions, as the devastating economic impact of its travel advisories has shown. Better internal communication and a system which ensured its representatives were 'on message' would have provided a clearer picture. As with all affected by the spread of Sars, the WHO should be better prepared next time. Meanwhile, Dr Heymann's comments in Beijing ought to be sufficient to convince the sceptics that the mainland's recovery has begun.